After last week’s picture of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy who washed up on a Turkish beach, put a human face on the consequences of the EU’s lethargic response to the refugee crisis facing the continent, some heartwarming images have followed — of German crowds holding up “refugees welcome” banners; of rallies in German cities leading new arrivals in song and applause. The German people have supported their chancellor’s bold, visionary leadership on the refugee crisis. Little more than a week ago, Angela Merkel sounded a warning: If Europe failed on the question of refugees, she said, “it won’t be the Europe we wished for”.
Merkel is right. For a union founded on a promise of solidarity to turn away thousands of desperate people fleeing persecution and war, would be to betray its own lofty ideals. Her example — Germany expects to grant asylum to 8,00,000 people — combined with domestic and international criticism of the reluctance bordering on callousness displayed by the leaders of other prominent EU members, such as France and Britain, has prompted a recalculation. French President Francois Hollande has committed to taking in 24,000 people, while British Prime Minister David Cameron — whose government had tightened asylum rules confronting Syrians as recently as March — pledged to accept a still-minuscule 20,000 over five years.
But even as Merkel tries to shame and bully other member nations into opening up their borders, an ad hoc approach runs the risk of breeding voter discontent — even in Germany, if it is perceived to be bearing a disproportionate share of the influx — and of amounting to using band aid to fix a bullet wound. Recognising this, Merkel has called for a European solution to what is a European problem. That means a collective effort to overhaul the current system. According to the Dublin accord, refugees are required to seek asylum in the EU country they first enter, usually Italy or Greece. These countries are overwhelmed with applications and need institutional and funding support to screen applicants quickly. But until an EU-wide quota system is established for relocation, these ports of entry will prefer to simply let refugees through to their destinations, a policy that has stretched the passport-free Schengen system almost to breaking point. Such a plan has been rejected by Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary — the last also adopted harsh new deterrents to discourage unauthorised border crossing. Europe’s politicians have no time to lose. If they do not reach a consensus soon, they will be guilty of failing to live up to European values.